Sunday, March 19, 2023

HOMILY: "Reckless Extravagance"

A Meditation on the Prodigal
In Luke 15:11-32
Sunday, March 19, 2023


Kirby Kendrick, "The Prodigal"
The prodigal, in my dictionary at least, is the one who is wastefully or even recklessly
extravagant.  The prodigal.  Recklessly extravagant.  My dictionary then turns to this very specific example.  And I may have used this line before—but I love it so much.  “Her dessert that evening was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream.”  In case you’re taking notes: “Her dessert that evening was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream.”

There are so many moments—so many pivotal moments—in the story Jesus tells this morning.  And every one of them, worthy of our reflection and wonder.  Icons of Christian experience, spiritual struggle and amazing grace.  There’s the “fork in the road” moment—when the younger son demands his share of the estate, his anticipated half, basically reveling in his father’s demise.  Then there’s the “slop in the sty” moment—when the same son wakes up far, far away, in a pig’s sty, tempted to eat the pigs’ slop, hungry and utterly and terribly alone.

There’s the “ring on his finger” moment—joy unleashed—when the father calls on his staff to stoke the fires and hire the musicians and set the tables for an unprecedented feast.  Kill the fatted calf.  Hire the band.  “This son of mine was dead and has come back to life!”  And then there’s the “who knows what comes next” moment—when the father begs his older son to set aside his grievances, and revel in the reunion, and join the celebration.  And Jesus just leaves it there.  The two of them in the yard.  The music, the dancing, the celebration roaring from within.  And the father waiting again.  To see what happens next.  So many moments, poignant, potent and pivotal.


Manchester Cathedral, "Prodigal"
But I wonder if the truly prodigal moment in Jesus’ story might be the one when the father sees the younger son returning from afar, battered by misfortune and his own poor choices, staggering down the road.  Is the prodigal the son or is the prodigal the father?    Maybe both.  That could be.  But isn’t it the father—barreling across the yard, throwing his arms around the boy, weeping into his dusty cheeks, kissing him over and over and over again—isn’t it the father who abandons all decorum and discipline?  Isn’t it the father who’s recklessly extravagant with his love?  Isn’t it the father who yields to grace, who releases all judgment and yields to grace?  I think so.  I think this might just be the Parable of the Prodigal Father.  I think this, right here, is the heart and soul of Jesus’ theological vision.  This is the God he wants us to know.  This is the church he wants us to be.

The Parable of the Prodigal Father.  I have to imagine that he’s lingered for years, this father, over dirty dishes, evenings at the kitchen sink, scraping and washing and drying each bowl, each pot, slowly and methodically, distracted by a hope that refuses to concede.  A hope that refuses to concede.  I have to imagine that he’s been watching all this time, he’s been waiting all this time—scanning the fields, the paths in every direction, the dusty horizon.  And now, at last, he catches sight of the boy, an elbow, a head bobbing, a cloud of dust.  He catches sight of the boy, his boy, in the road, a long way off.  

And maybe the father’s just guessing this time, and maybe it’s not the first time, because he wants so desperately to believe that the boy, his boy, might return home at last.  Or maybe he recognizes the boy’s gait now, the way he’s walking now, the familiar bobbing of his head.  At a distance.  Or the lumbering of his tired soul.  He’s seen it before.  But he feels compassion for the boy, and his heart swells with love for the boy, his boy.  And the father leaves the unscraped dishes and the unwashed pots, and he bolts from the kitchen, letting the screened door slam behind him.  And he runs, the father runs to meet the boy, and he throws his arms around the boy, and he kisses him over and over and over again.  And isn’t this the prodigal moment?  Isn’t this the recklessness, the extravagance of amazing grace?   This is the God Jesus wants us to know.  A God of tearful reunions.  A God of gratitude and communion.  A God of whipped cream, piled high on crunchy desserts.


At the heart of our faith, my friends, is this insight, this belief, this conviction—that such grace as this infuses our lives, our landscapes and our communities.  All of them.  All of them.  Everywhere.  Creation is not indifferent to love and kindness.  Creation aches for reunion and renewal.  Creation teems and trembles, shines and shimmers with the same grace fueling the father’s fabulous sprint to welcome the boy home.  It’s something like the energy we experience here, every Sunday, when we roam around passing the peace, greeting new friends, imagining the energy of God in every hand we take, in every fist we bump, in every hug and every eye that shines.
We cultivate this faith together.  We sing it into being on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings.  We manifest it in service and protest and creative ministries we share.  It is indeed like a vine, with many branches.  And God tends the vine with care, pruning the branches with intention, nurturing the vision, the spirit, the life force that makes it all bear fruit.  This is who we are.  This is what we believe.  Creation is not indifferent to love and kindness.  And God is always and everywhere prone to prodigality.  Reckless extravagance.  Amazing grace.    

What the world needs from us, what the world needs from the church—is (first) our awareness of God’s extravagance, and (then) our willingness to trust and even collaborate with God’s grace. 
This is not to say that we stick our heads in the sand and live in blissful ignorance of our neighbor’s pain or the world’s despair.  Not at all.  That’s not gospel.  Gospel is a spiritual orientation to hope, a daily practice of partnership, a well-watered garden of relationships, friendships, alliances committed to the promise of reconciliation and justice.  Gospel is the father waiting by the kitchen window, watching the distant horizon, washing all those dishes day after day, year after year.  His hope, a song in his heart that will not be silenced.  “I’ve got love like an ocean, I’ve got love like an ocean, I’ve got love like an ocean in my soul…”  

John Wright, "Prodigal"
Now the really interesting thing about this parable is that the father’s prodigality—his grace and generosity—is extended not only to the younger son who has squandered and wasted so much on so little.  But also—and this is so important to all of us who are elder sons in the room today—that same love and kindness and grace is extended to the other son who grumbles in the yard now, who resents the brother’s carelessness, who feels aggrieved and taken a bit for granted.  OK, taken very much for granted!  

He, too, it seems, the older brother, is battling in the shadows of his own spirit.  He, too, it seems, is contending with pride, and perhaps some sadness around the way pride doesn’t deliver what it often promises.  So the music just sets him off.  And the dancing just makes him mad.  And he, too, is rather displaced, out there in the yard—not so far from home as his brother was, but every bit as estranged, and every bit as lost.  

But there’s all the grace out there in the yard that there is inside at the table—where the meat is piled high and the feast is fabulous and the dancing’s already in full swing.  Because this father imagines a celebration with room for every one of his children.  And this father imagines a family where every one of them finds meaning and purpose, and love and blessing.  And this father will not rest until he’s given his all, every ounce of his energy, to bringing the two lost sons together again.  So he leaves the feast behind, and he slips off his dancing shoes, and he goes out to the angry son in the yard.  And then he pleads with him.  And then he listens to him.  And then he reminds him of the love that endures between them, the love that opens doors for lost brothers returning home.  Reckless extravagance.  Amazing grace.  Whipped cream.


My friends, there are ten thousand ways to get lost in this world.  I know you know this.  You know that I know this.  Ten thousand ways to wander from our authentic selves.  Ten thousand ways to compromise on values we cherish.  Ten thousand ways to lose track of the beauty within us, and the pleasure of being alive, and the divine promise that first brought us into this strange and holy land.  Sometimes we do it to ourselves, and sometimes we get a lot of help.  The world can be hard that way.  

But whether you find yourself lost in a pig sty, beleaguered and desperately alone, or whether you find yourself burdened by anger and resentment, or maybe some combination of the two, the parable today is a promise and, within that promise, an invitation.  Wherever you are, however lost you may be, however heavy the burden you carry, there is a Love in your life that will not let you go.  There is a Love in your life that keeps watch for you and honors you and delights in you—because you are part of God’s family, because you are an essential part of God’s family, because you are uniquely precious and forever cherished in God’s family.  That’s the gospel.  That’s the promise.  And however lost you may be, however heavy the burden you carry today, the promise is yours.  It’ll always be yours.  And it comes from God.  From the very heart of the universe.    

So you can think of this as the Parable of the Prodigal Father, if you like; or you can just as easily think of it as the Parable of the Prodigal Mother or the Parable of the Prodigal Parent.  After all, gender’s not the point of Jesus’ story.  It’s so much bigger, so much wilder, so much deeper than that.  The point is that God is like the one whose hope does not concede: even though yours might.  God is like the one who waits and watches for you in the dark night of your soul, when it doesn’t seem as if there could possibly be another who gives a darn.  You might be there today.  You might be there right now.  

The point is that God is like the one who bolts from the kitchen sink, dashes through the screen door and rambles down the road to greet you.  Not a moment to waste.  Howling with delight.  And God is like the one who throws her arms around you, who welcomes you home and roars with laughter, who kisses you and gathers you up and rushes you back to a party to end all parties.  That’s the gospel.  That’s the promise.  And if you look real close, you’ll find it everywhere you look.  In every hillside and every river bend.  In every brooding storm and every bright rainbow.  In every season of political disintegration and every feast of friends.   God is always and everywhere prone to prodigality.  Your life is and always will be a blessing.  And if you need to be reminded, just ask one of us.  Any one of us.  That’s why we’re here.

The invitation, then, is this:

Come on inside.  You may suspect that you’re not made for parties, or that parties are for party people.  But that’s a load of bunk.  Seriously.  Come on inside.  We need you at the table.  God has set a place for you at the table.  The community is only whole and complete when you’re at the table.  

You know, Jesus never says what happened when the father and the older son finished their conversation in the yard.  So we get to write the next chapter of this great, powerful, poignant tale.  Let’s open all the doors.  Let’s fly the rainbow flag.  Let’s set judgment and bitterness aside.  Let’s get the chairs pulled back and the floor cleared.  Because the lost are found, and the dead have come back to life.  God’s grace makes a place for every last one of us.  And this is a dance that we all can dance.  Together.  After dessert.

Amen and Ashe!